Rice and crisis

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The official title of Raul Gonzalez in the Arroyo regime of ironies is justice secretary. When asked early this week if Bayan Muna party list congressman Satur Ocampo was under government surveillance, Gonzalez answered the question with another question: “Why, does he have a lot of rice?”

The regime, said Gonzalez, was “monitoring rice,” by which he meant the hoarding of that staple, among others, as well as the state of rice prices. “These leftists,” Gonzalez continued, “why should we monitor them?”

While Gonzalez meant the answer to be self-evident, his question was far from rhetorical. Armed men likely to be from either the police or the military were observed—they didn’t seem to mind being seen — in the vicinity of Ocampo’s residence in Quezon City last Sunday, having trailed Ocampo, who had just returned from an official trip to Canada, from the airport. Ocampo’s neighbors observed two teams on motorcycles as well as two other vehicles.

The incident followed the filing of murder charges last Friday against Ocampo and his party-list colleagues Liza Maza of Gabriela and Teodoro Casino of Bayan Muna, as well as former Anakpawis Congressman Rafael Mariano. The same thing had happened last year, when Ocampo was also trailed and his movements surveilled. He was finally arrested over murder charges in Leyte that later turned out to be so absurd they had to be dropped.

In implying that the regime had nothing to do with it, Gonzalez as well as the police were thus being disingenuous. The campaign against leftists, whether armed or unarmed, but specifically of the variety represented by Ocampo, is central to the Arroyo regime’s focus on its survival.

The regime is also anxious to prevent further public discussion over such issues as its legitimacy and the runaway corruption at its very core. But it also correctly sees Ocampo et. al. as capable of mobilizing the warm bodies needed to oust governments — with the difference that, unlike the warm bodies it has mobilized for all those “unity walks” and free food camp-outs, Ocampo et.al.’s warm bodies are at the same time highly politicized, extremely articulate, and passionately committed.

It’s an attribute the left everywhere shares. The right may have the money, the power, and the guns, but it’s the left that has the brains, the organizational will, and the passion to sustain any fight. That capacity is being demonstrated particularly in Latin America, where leftist and center-left governments have been elected in key countries, among them Bolivia, Paraguay and Venezuela. Vying with that development is the Maoist triumph in the recent elections in Nepal, right here in Asia. What was instrumental in all these instances was the leftist capacity for painstaking organizing, mass education and mobilization, often against near-impossible odds.

It helps explain why the Arroyo regime has filed murder charges against and intensified its surveillance of Ocampo and company — seemingly despite, but actually because, of the crisis over rice.

That crisis has the potential to bring the political crisis over regime legitimacy, lack of transparency and corruption to a head. The crisis is escalating in the context not only of that political crisis, but also in that of the hunger that has been spreading among more and more Filipinos during the Arroyo reign.

One in every five Filipinos — or 20 percent of the population — experienced hunger at least once every three months last year. Although for the poorest of the poor getting enough rice to assuage hunger pangs was problematic, the staple was at least available somehow to poor families, among whom the common practice in the absence of other food is to flavor it with salt. With rice prices rising due to a combination of factors, among them hoarding, profiteering and corruption, as well as expected supply shortfalls, even the prospects of a few salt-flavored mouthfuls of rice to stave off hunger are shutting down for the poor.

Panic is among the results, evident in the long lines that have materialized wherever cheap government rice is being sold. Unrest, the inevitable companion of a hungry population, could soon follow, as it has in the form of food riots in Haiti, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and several African countries.

In most cases, the food riots were unorganized, spontaneous outbreaks. Although the political conditions in each country differed, it seems that what they had in common was the relative weaknesses of political and social movements, except in Haiti, where the riots forced the resignation of the Alexis government.

Contrast this with the Philippines, where hunger, perennial crisis and the existence of political and social movements as well as civil society groups eager to hold the Arroyo regime to account could result in precisely the explosive demand for regime change Arroyo and company have so far succeeded in preventing.

The possibilities are unlikely to have escaped the regime. Awareness of those possibilities among regime capos explains the filing of charges against Ocampo and company, and even the revival of libel charges against Archbishop Oscar Cruz, one of the regime’s leading Church nemeses, as well as rumored plans to revive various charges against the United Opposition’s Jejomar Binay and others.

Is the regime monitoring rice? It is. But it’s also monitoring people like Ocampo, Cruz and Binay, as well as militant and civil society groups, the rice crisis being a possible trigger for the escalation and resolution of the crisis that has been simmering in this country for the last three years.

(BusinessWorld)

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